Air travel in summer: Airlines shrink schedules, hoping to avoid meltdowns

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Even months later, Ashley Wright-Seligers remembers it as if it happened yesterday: The 10 p.m. text to announce her early morning flight was canceled. Then came the scramble to rebook, only to discover Southwest Airlines She did not have flights to Cleveland in time for the wedding she was hired to photograph.

Last August, Bob Shelton scheduled his first trip to see his mother in two years, while lining up business appointments once he arrived in St. Louis. As he was about to leave for the airport, Southwest cited the weather in canceling his flight. Another flight was scheduled to leave on the same day and had no seats available, so Chilton flew the next day and saw his mother, but he missed each of his carefully planned appointments.

Given these questions, many US airlines are pledging a renewed focus on reliability to avoid flight disruptions in the coming months, even as uncertainties persist about staff shortages and fuel prices.

Airlines hope spring break can continue into summer

Demand for airline seats is the strongest since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and is likely to grow during the busy summer travel season. Airlines are also mindful of the optics of canceled flights and stranded passengers after the industry received billions of dollars in pandemic relief, prompting a different approach this summer — one proactive action, shrunken schedules and added service to its busiest routes.

Aviation analyst Robert Mann of RW Mann & Co. said: , an aviation consultancy: “The industry is trying to be on its best behavior while pushing the boundaries of rapid growth.”

It will be a delicate balance. Staffing will be crucial to the renewed effort.

The industry has received billions in pandemic relief money to keep frontline workers in business. While the payroll support program prevented airlines from laying off workers, it did not stop them from offering incentives that encouraged employees to voluntarily leave the company. Employment in the industry fell by 50,000, leaving airlines with a shortage of staff when travel demand rebounded last year.

The unrest drew scrutiny from lawmakers, who questioned why the industry was not ready to demand air travel after receiving money to keep employees on the job.

Amid flight delays and cancellations, senator questions airline chiefs worth more than $54 billion in pandemic aid

“We are ready for the summer and have scaled the airline in terms of the resources we have,” said Robert Isom, CEO of American Airlines, during the recent earnings call. Delta Air Lines President Glenn Hauenstein had a similar summer “The priority is to act reliably,” he pledged.

Delta said it hired more than 10,000 employees in 2021 and nearly so 4000 so far this year. Long waiting hours Its call centers — a major complaint among customers last summer — have been cut back to an average of 30 minutes, executives say.

American, the nation’s largest airline, has added 12,000 employees since last summer, while United Airlines has hired 6,000 workers this year and employs about 200. pilots per month. Southwest has a net gain of 5,000 employees so far this year, which is part of its plan to add More than 10,000 new employees in 2022.

However, the hiring spree is not enough to return operations to pre-pandemic levels. Even with 2,600 new employees this year, Alaska Airlines executives said, it’s hard to train pilots fast enough — a sentiment shared by other airlines.

Jeff Pelletier, managing director of Airline Data Inc., said: , his analysis shows that the five largest US airlines have reduced scheduled departures between June and September of this year by about 7.5 percent compared to offers two months ago. While rising fuel prices is a concern, he said employment – especially for pilots – remains the biggest driver of decisions.

“This decline over the past couple of months is an indication, in my opinion, that airlines are realizing that they have a cap on those resources and it is something they might well plan for now rather than later,” Pelletier said.

If you want to become an airline pilot, now is the time. There has been a shortage of pilots piling up for years, and the pandemic has only made it worse. Is it enough training? (Video: Lee Powell/Washington Post)

Looking back, airline executives said they miscalculated the impact vaccines and novel coronavirus variants would have on demand and their employees. The data-driven industry has had almost no models for navigating a global pandemic to this extent Air travel on Earth.

The American Airlines ramp up last summer was the largest in the company’s history but not without problems. After experiencing operational difficulties, the carrier lowered its schedule last July.

“This rapid growth has posed challenges we have not faced before, but we have faced them strongly and learned from them,” said US spokeswoman Sarah Gantz.

Southwest has also faced hurdles as it tries to meet the growing demand — learning lessons that executives say they will apply in the coming months.

“There have been a lot of challenges that have created a situation where people cannot act in this pandemic world like they did before the pandemic,” said Mike van de Ven, chief operating officer of Southwest Airlines, on a recent earnings call. “When we went into the summer…we should have had more staff available or less ability to navigate through it better.”

The collapse in multi-day flights on Spirit Airlines continues with passengers angry. “I’m really sorry,” says the CEO.

As Southwest approaches this summer, the airline has a better handle on what to expect and more staff to deal with the disruptions, said Bob Jordan, chief executive of Southwest.

“I’m not saying it’s going to be perfect, but I think our ability to manage the summer and our belief that the summer will be more reliable from an operational perspective is much better here in 2022 than it was in 2021,” he said.

Airlines have emphasized that they are not alone in trying to meet the demand for summer travel. Other critical components of the aviation system – the Federal Aviation Administration, the Transportation Security Administration, and airlines Contractors – also trying to recover.

“We recognize that the entire infrastructure is not set up to return to these rapid growth rates,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told industry analysts recently. “All of these restrictions are hampering a reliable schedule.”

Florida has become a popular destination as demand for leisure travel has rebounded during the pandemic, but weather, air traffic control and other issues have made the state the epicenter of high-profile crashes responsible for thousands of canceled flights.

FAA officials This month he met with representatives from a dozen airlines to discuss how to maintain air traffic in the region. The FAA said it will add staff and allow airlines to use alternate routes and altitudes to keep planes moving when airspace is restricted.

The agency also said that National Weather Service forecasters at its air traffic centers can now provide more accurate weather forecasts for roads in the busiest parts of US airspace, a move it said could reduce delays for travelers. TSA officials said they are also preparing for a busy summer, hosting recruitment and recruitment events for seasonal demand.

Industry leaders also say lifting the federal mask mandate for transportation should ease tensions in the air, even if it worries those with compromised immune systems and other travelers.

New challenges have also emerged since last summer. The nation continues to struggle with the variables of the coronavirus and rising fuel prices – the second largest cost in the industry. Nearly seven months after federal aid to fight the pandemic expired, airlines are still scrambling to fill critical jobs in a tight labor market that has driven up wages.

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Employees who have worked throughout the pandemic are increasingly speaking out about the recent pressures on frontline workers.

In a recent letter to Southwest executives, the union representing the carrier’s pilots raised concerns about stress and working conditions more than two years after the pandemic. Pilots in Delta, Alaska and the United States raised similar issues with the administration.

“Our customers deserve the best and we want the airline to be successful,” Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Pilots Association, said in an interview. “We have gone from a company that supports its employees to a company that supports its employees. There is a lot of tension and we are going to lose people.”

Many flight attendants, many of whom have faced passenger anger over wearing masks, share the same sentiment.

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It was ‘Oh, make it work.’ Oh, make it work, said Lynne Montgomery, president of the Local 556 Transportation Workers Union, which represents flight attendants in the Southwest, “so we put smiles on our faces and make it work.” “But now we can’t. There have been too many storms — weather storms, real-world storms.”

Southwest said in a statement that reports of crew fatigue began to decline with the hiring of new staff. The company said the additional staffing will enable the carrier to recover more quickly when disruptions occur.

Despite preparations ahead of summer, analysts say summer 2022 could be a case of holding your breath full of the unknown.

“I would like to think that everything is going to go well, but realistically, you know, we will have weather as we always do and we will have a crew shortage at the end of every calendar month as always,” Mann said. “And some of that will be a problem.”

Last year’s problems are still high on the minds of many travelers, prompting some to reconsider their options or plan in advance in other ways. Shelton, a professor of chemistry at Texas A&M University in San Antonio, said the options are fewer and the prices are higher, which could lead him to drive.

Wedding photographer Wright Seligers eventually found her way to Cleveland last August, but a ticket on Delta was more than $160 and required a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Omaha—where her flight was originally scheduled to depart southwest—to Des Moines. I’ve made a backup plan in case an incoming flight from Earth doesn’t come out.

“I decided to travel several days ago, so if anything happens, I can find the option to reschedule,” Wright Seligers wrote in an email. “I also looked at other potential backup flight options.”

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